4 out of 5

Created by: Danny Strong

Opioid addiction and the resultant epidemic became very topical again in recent past (2020 / 2021), causing it to pop up as either a topic-of-the-week or season long struggle for various TV dramas. While Dopesick is ultimately a fictional take on the matter, that it’s based on non-fiction – Beth Macy’s book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America – makes it even more haunting, given that the drug’s effects and the creepily long reach of pharmaceutical companies that it covers are more frightening than the generally up-scaled antics of those other entries. That is: Dopesick very much proves the adopted adage of truth being more horrifying than fiction, in this case.

Main series writer (and creator) Danny Strong keeps the focus on four main characters: Michael Keaton’s Dr. Samuel Finnix, a small town, respected, well-meaning doctor who first falls for the marketing behind Oxycodone – the show’s main drug of interest – and then finds himself addicted after being prescribed it for an accident; Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy Mallum, a member of that same town, and prescribed the drug by Finnix; Peter Sarsgaard’s Rick Mountcastle, trying to lead an investigation into the threat of Oxycodone, and the knowledge of that threat by its maker; and Rosario Dawson as Bridget Meyer, who’d led a prior investigation into the same, which we see shut down time and again by political relationships and payoffs. The show jumps back and forth between two timelines to cover this info – early 2000s, mid 2010s – and while it can seem like quite a bit, notes dates and remembering the growing cast we meet, by keeping the connection between characters clear, and making sure to show linear progression regarding important events, it’s actual surprisingly seamless. And the flip-flopping becomes essential in understanding the full picture – it does not just feel like a tweak done in order to liven up the material.

The growing cast may not have as much screentime, but they’re surely important in painting a picture of everyone involved as human (or relatively human, in the case of the pharmaceutical head honchos) – Betsy’s family; sales employees who are tasked with pitching Oxycodone in the most misleading way possible; Meyer’s husband – and also showing how much the drug can change people, both those directly impacted through abuse, and those around them witnessing that abuse. In the case of our investigators and CEOs, we’re shown just how much crap the former have to go through to get the most minor acknowledgement of Oxy’s dangers,and in the case of the latter, we’re shown how the bottom line and family squabbles for power are, apparently, a swaying motivator for ignoring whether or not the product you’re pushing is killing people. I suppose there’s some criticism to be made for casting the pharmaceuticals as outright villains, but this is where the reality of the matter is most frightening: there’s the unfortunate tang of truth in their actions. Again, we see some expressing concern – some remains of humanity – but also how easy it is to set that aside when someone waves bonuses in their faces, or for fear of losing clout, or a job. However, this is where we get one of the hiccups in casting: while all of the principles are fantastic, Michael Stuhlbarg, portraying eventual head of Purdue Pharma Richard Sackler, gets too much caught up in doing an impression of the figure. We know Stuhlbarg can act, but he seemed more focused, in this case, on getting down a vocal cadence and demeanor. It’s not necessarily distracting, because most of the scenes dealing with Purdue are just to deliver a set point – how they counter the FDA; how they push their agenda forward – and there might also be some purposefulness to this performance in distancing us from the character, but it still stands out in a cast otherwise performing very naturalistically.

Another main, differentiating factor between Dopesick and other shows that’ve covered similar territory is that Dopesick doesn’t wallow. And, if anything, that makes it all the more tragic, and shocking: that the horrid events it covers, and the effects upon some of our characters, are delivered without putting us through the tragedy porn of addicts; it feels closer to a truth – how we might hear about these things on the fringes, or as-it-happened-to-someone-else, and can thus shut it out. The cutting back and forth between timelines and characters prevents that disassociation, though – we get the connections, and we get to know and like these people, such that just seeing the impact in brief is enough to break our hearts as viewers. We don’t need to wallow to feel the impact.

Dopesick is an incredibly strong, and immersive show. There can be a slight learning curve in how to watch its unraveling of events and information, but even while watching with a grain of salt regarding this being a fictionalized take on real events, and told through a particular point of view, it’s impossible for it to not be eye-opening, and damning, and scary as all get out.